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'Control:' A New Spin on Rock Tragedy

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'Control:' A New Spin on Rock Tragedy



'Control:' A New Spin on Rock Tragedy

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For most fans of the British post-punk band, Joy Division, have been anticipating Anton Corbijn's film, "Control." It got ecstatic reviews in Britain. The movie tells the story of the group's lead singer, Ian Curtis, who committed suicide in 1980 at the age of 23. "Control" finally opened an exclusive run in New York this week.

Critic Bob Mondello says the film spins new variations on a music business story that's all too familiar.

BOB MONDELLO: The year is 1977, and 20-year-old Ian Curtis is living with his folks, falling for and marrying his best friend's girlfriend, working a day job and playing with his buddies in a band they call Joy Division.

Like most Manchester rock bands that get a little traction with the public, they spend all their time playing in tiny clubs for peanuts. But unlike most bands, they also attract the attention of Tony Wilson, a TV rock show host, who offers to mention their extended play disc on the air - a break that somehow feels anticlimactic.

(Soundbite of movie, "Control")

Unidentified Man #1: (As Character) That's us.

Unidentified Man #2: Shh.

Mr. CRAIG PARKINSON (Actor): (As Tony Wilson) A band called Joy Division. This is an EP "An Ideal for Living" and that wraps it up for tonight. Keep the music coming in. Next week, we have The Clash live in the studio.

Unidentified Man #3: We've just this been on tele, lad.

Unidentified Man #4: Mm-hmm.

Unidentified Man #5: That was fun.

Unidentified Man #3: He didn't even say if he liked it then.

Unidentified Man #6: Of course he likes it. He waved in for the camera like that. Forget the records. Start putting our song.

MONDELLO: A few insults later, the host agrees to do just that - a decision he almost immediately has second thoughts about.

(Soundbite of movie, "Control")

Mr. PARKINSON: (As Tony Wilson) We are live so no swearing or we will cut you off.

Unidentified Man #7: What about ass?

Mr. PARKINSON: (As Tony Wilson) What?

Unidentified Man #7: Is ass a swear word?

Mr. PARKINSON: (As Tony Wilson) Ass. Yes, it's a swear word.

Unidentified Man #8: No, it's not.

Mr. PARKINSON: (As Tony Wilson) (Unintelligible) out there, I know ass isn't a swear word. Here, in TV land, ass is most definitely a swear word.

Unidentified Man #9: What about big dog (bleep)? Can you say that?

MONDELLO: They're goofing around. Punk alienation turned into a joke the show does go on.

(Soundbite of movie, "Control")

Mr. PARKINSON: (As Tony Wilson) Seeing as how this is the first television program, which brought you the first appearances from everyone from The Beatles to the Buzz Stop. We like to think we bring you the most new and interesting sounds in the northwest. They're called Joy Division. This is called "Transmission."

(Soundbite of song, "Transmission")

MONDELLO: Now, this is probably starting to sound like every other singer biography Hollywood's ever made, so let me back up a bit.

"Control" is about losing control, but it's very precisely made. It's in black-and-white, partly as a nod to the bleakness of the songs, and partly because first-time director Anton Corbjin made his name as a still photographer. He shot photos of the real Joy Division in 1979, and he knows the value of keeping images pristine.

Just as important, he's kept the music pristine. He has the actors performing the songs live on camera, and the effect is striking.

Actor Sam Riley is a near double for the real Ian Curtis, and clutching the microphone as if it's the only thing keeping him standing is plenty persuasive.

(Soundbite of movie, "Control")

Mr. SAM RILEY (Actor): (As Ian Curtis) (Singing) Listen to the silence, let it ring on. Eyes, dark grey lenses frightened of the sun. We would have a fine time living in the night left to blind destruction waiting for our sight.

MONDELLO: For comparison, here's the real Joy Division.

(Soundbite of song, "Transmission")

Mr. IAN CURTIS (Vocalist, Joy Division): (Singing) And we would go on as though nothing was wrong. And hide from these days we remained all alone. Staying in the same place, just staying out the time, touching from a distance further all the time.

MONDELLO: The mimicry is good enough that at times the film feels almost like a documentary, following its leading man from the apartment he shares with a wife he married too young, to the clubs where he sings of a loss and disaffection he increasingly feels.

Riley captures very precisely Curtis's weird stage affect(ph), swinging his arms between choruses in a frenzied, spasmodic way that looks not unlike the epileptic seizures that sometimes felled him on stage. Those seizures would come with increasing frequency as Joy Division's fame grew, and as the singer got caught up in the stress of an affair.

Pressures mounted, and Curtis, for whom alienation has become more than just a punk pose by that point, ended up hanging himself on the eve of what was to be Joy Division's first American tour. He had always wanted to escape Manchester, and perhaps the saddest thing in "Control," is that the film makes it clear that he was about to.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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